Shevrin Jones joined the Florida Senate in November a lot differently than when he first became a 29-year-old state representative nearly a decade ago.
Upon winning a South Broward House seat in 2012, Jones was new to state politics, married to a woman and the public didn’t know he is gay.
Eight years later, he’s a respected lawmaker who is vice-chair of the Senate education committee, fully out and partnered with Matthew Beatty, an equally admired South Florida philanthropist and executive.
Jones, 38, is the first out LGBT person in the 40-member state Senate and the first openly LGBT Black person elected to the entire 160-member Florida Legislature.
“We're not just making history, because that's temporary, right? There’s work that's going to have to be done to show that the seat at the table that has been given to me by the people, that it won't be wasted,” said Jones, who in August defeated five fellow Democrats to win the District 35 Senate primary with more than 43% of the vote. (In the Nov. 3 general election, he had only write-in opposition and won more than 97% of votes cast.)
Jones is deeply rooted in South Florida, a former Everglades Senior High Advanced Placement biology teacher whose father, Eric Jones Jr., is a well-known pastor and founding mayor of West Park near Pembroke Park. He’s close with his entire family, from his 9-month-old niece to his 90-year-old grandmother, who recently shared with him her secret to living a long life: “Mind your f---ing business and do what you’re supposed to do.”
“That’s it!” Jones said, laughing.
Jones said he first became interested in public service while a student at American Senior High in Northwest Miami-Dade.
“It started in high school when I became vice president for the Student Government Association. That’s when I got interested in helping people,” he said.
Jones joined a variety of high school groups and clubs, including Health Occupations Students of America, now known as HOSA, Future Health Professionals; and the school debate club. “I played football in my freshman and sophomore year. I was in chorus. I was in band,” he said. “My parents kept us busy.”
He graduated from Florida A&M University in 2006 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and later earned a master’s degree in educational leadership at Florida Atlantic University.
Along the way, he kept several secrets. As young as age 5, he knew he was attracted to other boys. And a few years later, a man in his family circle began molesting him.
“I never want to couple me being molested as the onset of me recognizing [my] homosexuality, because it's just not accurate. But it was something that started confusing me. Like, what is this? Is this supposed to hurt? Are you supposed to feel this way? Because if so, I don’t like it.”
The abuse continued for “a long time,” Jones said, until another young victim came forward and the molester went to jail.
“I went to college and graduated and I started processing a lot of that stuff. That stuff starts eating at you,” he said. “One, you couldn’t acknowledge it, so you felt helpless. The adult you is really trying to reach down to the child you, and trying to communicate with something that is not possible. It can mess with your mind just a tad bit.
“I was in college. I have a girlfriend, but I’m also fooling around with guys and things like that. And so all of this is happening and you’ve got all this stuff going through your head, and then you graduate, you get home and you want to get married. I called off my wedding the first time, and I finally said, ‘OK, I want to get married.’ And we finally do get married and I’m like, ‘I don't think I want this.’ I think — no, I don’t want this.”
Jones and his wife stayed married for six years. They split about the time he went to Tallahassee.
Back then, Jones didn’t label himself. “Because my parents are strict. Very conservative Christians. And homosexuality was preached against in our church.”
The same year Jones became a state representative, David Richardson of Miami Beach also was elected to the House, becoming Florida’s first openly gay lawmaker.
“We both got elected in August 2012, but he was not out at all. When I met him, I did not know he was gay. That was something much later he shared with me,” said Richardson, 63. “When he decided to run for Senate, my free advice was: You need to have your answer ready now. If a reporter asks if you are gay, I don’t want to see you stammering for an answer. Have your answer ready so you don’t look like you’re trying to make it up.”
Shevrin Jones speaking on the House floor. Photo courtesy of Steve Rothaus.
Jones came out publicly in 2018, when he allowed LGBT-rights group Equality Florida to identify him in an endorsement as an openly gay candidate.
“Shevrin enjoys much of the same type of reception that I did. People don’t first acknowledge that he’s gay because he has business credentials and that will serve him well,” Richardson said. “People recognize that he’s done a lot of good work in public safety, for example. He’s done a lot of work in affirmative action, for minorities, not particularly for LGBT people. He comes with that portfolio. They see him not as a gay activist but as someone who’s been successful as an educator.”
It's not all been smooth sailing for Jones, however.
Last summer, he and many other family members contracted COVID-19. After they recovered, only Jones was told he could not donate plasma because he is a gay man. (As a result of the AIDS crisis, the Food and Drug Administration in 1985 banned gay men from giving blood. In April because of the COVID-19 crisis and the need for blood and plasma, the FDA said gay men could donate if they’ve abstained from sex the past three months.)
Days after Jones spoke out about not being able to donate plasma, someone sent text messages to voters in his district that "Shevrin Jones was discriminated against for recent homosexual contact." He then sent a rebuttal text asking voters to “ignore this kind of trash.”
Jones said living publicly as a gay man has been made easier by his relationship with Matthew Beatty.
“My partner plays a huge role in my life, and so what I did not want to do was to hide him,” Jones said. “Everything I am now is because he and I have a major relationship with each other.”
They met in June 2012, months before Jones became a House member, at a spoken-word and music club in downtown Miami.
“They had an open mike night, and we had some mutual friends that we were just kind of both speaking with, and each of them just started to kind of peel off of it and ended up being just us,” Beatty recalled. “We introduced ourselves and the rest is history.”
Shevrin Jones with Matthew Beatty. Photo courtesy of Steve Rothaus.
Beatty, 37, also comes from an influential family. His father, Robert, is an attorney and publisher of The South Florida Times, which serves the region’s African-American, Caribbean and Haitian communities.
For the past eight years, the younger Beatty has worked at the Miami Foundation, most recently as senior director of communications and engagement. On Dec. 22, he announced he’s moving to the Carrie Meek Foundation, to become its vice president and chief operating officer.
“I’ll lead a relaunch of the foundation and its investments across issues that Congresswoman Meek championed: Economic and Community Development, Education, Health and Housing in under-resourced communities throughout Miami-Dade and the South Florida region,” Beatty posted on Facebook.
Jones and Beatty did not rush into a relationship. When they met, Beatty was already out.
“I had done a lot of that, that mental and emotional work,” Beatty said. “I was ready to stand as who I was and live my life open and honestly, and Shevrin was still going through a divorce and was still understanding what that would look like for him post-divorce: him living his true life.”
That worked well for them.
“I tell people all the time that I'm grateful for that because it gave us a really long time to just be friends,” Beatty said. “And because we didn't enter a romantic relationship right after we met, we built a true friendship that was based on just mutual interest. And mutual support of each other. And just kind of enjoying each other's company.
“And that friendship is what sticks with us to this day, and to me is one of the fundamental elements of our relationship. Yes, we love each other. Yes, we're committed to each other. But at the end of the day, we just enjoy being around each other as friends, and that really keeps both of us here.”
After Jones contracted COVID-19, Beatty nursed him back to health.
“He was the person who took care of me,” Jones said. “Not just that time. He took care of me when I messed up my back, when my grandmother died, when my brother died. COVID. He’s been right there.”
Jones said that when he finally revealed his true self and introduced Beatty to his parents, they weren’t thrilled.
“I don't think my parents will ever be happy with my decision, but they love their son enough to say, ‘You know what? It's his life. And, if this is his choice, then so be it. We will have our views on this, but we are not going to forfeit our relationship with our child.’ I can't ask anything else because I know there are people out there whose parents have disowned them because of their sexuality.”
Jones remains an active member of his father’s church, the Koinonia Worship Center & Village in Pembroke Park.
“Some church members have distanced themselves from me but I don’t care,” Jones said.
Voters, however, have shown it doesn’t matter to them.
“With all the things happening in society today, people want someone who's going to lead them. They don’t care what you’re doing in your bedroom,” Jones said. “Do they have an opinion? I’m sure they do. It would be dumb to think that they don't. But are they saying ‘I’m not voting for that guy because …’? I doubt it.
“People, when we were knocking on their doors, they were asking about my sexuality. Half of them were like, ‘Oh, I heard about you. And I’m voting for you.’”
Journalist Steve Rothaus covered LGBT issues for 22 years at the Miami Herald.